April Madness, Part 2: There's a Very Delicious Fungus Among Us
April 14, 2011
Last week, I directed your attention to the April phenomenon of mud-staring. This week we will look at another strange behavior usually seen in April. Have you ever seen people furtively walking around outside carrying gunny sacks and staring at the ground? No, they’re not snipe-hunting. They are looking for fungus: a very delicious fungus that can sell for $50 per pound or more!
April is the prime time for finding wild morel mushrooms. Exactly when and where morels will appear is the subject of much theorizing. For instance, my Grandmother Opal always maintained that the best time for morels was when the temperature had been over 60 degrees for several days, followed by a good rain, and then another warm sunny day. She must have been right, because she always managed to find morels.
There are as many theories on where to find morels as there are morel hunters. Some people maintain that south-facing slopes are best. Others say north-facing slopes are best. Other recommended places to look: near dead elm trees, old orchards, near mayapple patches, near blackberry patches, recently burned areas, hill tops, valleys, backyards, pastures, cemeteries and golf courses.
The one thing a morel hunter won’t tell you is exactly where they personally have found morels in the past. Productive morel patches are closely guarded secrets. That’s why morel hunters slink around in the woods. Somebody might follow them and discover their secret spot! My own Uncle Chuck won’t divulge the location of his secret spots to me, or even his own son. I think we may be able to get him to reveal them in his will.
So, now you know where to look: pretty much anywhere. The next step is to be able to actually find the morels. Of course, morels couldn’t be blaze orange or neon pink. No, they have to be the same color and texture as the dead leaves lying around on the forest floor. The trick is finding the first one. After you’ve seen one morel, the others seem to magically appear once your mind has locked onto the pattern.
Even when the conditions are right and you’ve gone to a likely morel patch, the cursed things often fail to appear! I have two ideas on why this happens. One, somebody has already been there! Two, the morels are smarter than we think. I’m going to wear camouflage the next time I go morel hunting. I have a very scientific theory that the morels see you coming and quickly burrow back underground. As a bonus, people won’t be able to follow me to my secret spot.
There is one catch, though. There are mushrooms called false morels (often referred to as "beefsteak" mushrooms) which look very similar to morels, except that they contain the toxic substance monomethylhydrazine. Unfortunately, some people can and do eat false morels with no ill effects and maintain that they are harmless. Do not listen to these people. There are no proven ways to detoxify false morels, and eating them can lead to violent illness or even death. My advice (along with that of every knowledgeable mycologist) is to never eat false morels. A very small number of people are sensitive to true morels as well, especially when consumed with alcohol. However, even these people can usually enjoy morels in moderation by eliminating alcohol consumption for a few days.
The Missouri Department of Conservation provides excellent guides for identifying morels and other edible mushrooms. Make sure you know what you’re eating, and throw away any mushrooms you can’t positively identify. What is the best way to cook morels? Most people bread and deep-fry them, but my very humble opinion is that sautéing them in butter or olive oil with a little garlic results in THE GREATEST THING YOU WILL EVER EAT.
So, pick up these Mid-Continent materials on mushroom hunting, grab your gunny sack, put on that camo (don’t let them see you coming), and get out there. Culinary paradise awaits you.
Photo credit: Flickr user Michael Hodge via Flickr's Creative Commons.Tags: mushrooms